Being an Early Adopter of New Technology Can Separate a Business From the Pack

Jerome Stephens opened a lucrative new market by embracing pipe bursting technology

Being an Early Adopter of New Technology Can Separate a Business From the Pack

 The crew at A&A Construction and Utilities in Baltimore includes (from left) Bruni, Raul, Miguel, Kenneth, Fidel, owner Jerome Stephens, Angel, Abel, Ever and Elliot — “we’re a first-name company,” Stephens says.

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Zigging while others zag can be a risky but fruitful business philosophy.

Consider Jerome Stephens, for example, who decided about 18 years ago to take his company, then called A&A Plumbing, in a different direction by embracing relatively new technology at the time: pipe bursting.

It was a go-big-or-go-home moment for Stephens and his Baltimore-based company, now known as A&A Construction and Utilities. But the gamble paid off, as indicated by the company’s new name, which Stephens changed in 2011 to better reflect the company’s new capabilities.

Stephens’ success story demonstrates the importance of being an early adopter of advanced technologies that can open up new markets, as well as differentiate from competitors and create barriers to market entry.

“I was trying to separate myself from the masses of plumbers,” Stephens says. “I also believed at that time that people would want pipes replaced without a big open trench.

“Pipe bursting technology definitely was a game-changer.”

A&A relies on pipe bursting and directional boring machines built by Pow-R Mole Trenchless Solutions.

“I was going to buy a horizontal directional drilling machine,” Stephens says. “But as I did research, someone told me about Pow-R Mole. The owner, Brian Kelly, told me his machines were smaller and could do pipe bursting along with directional boring for installing new water services, as well as install sewers lines on grade, once I got good enough.

“It opened my eyes to boring and pipe bursting.”

A better way

The tipping point for Stephens came on a job the company tackled nearly two decades ago.

A crew of A&A employees was trying to install a new 6-inch-diameter PVC sewer line at a restaurant in Baltimore.

“The installation was about 12 feet deep and we worked with live utility lines running above the sewer pipe — and over our heads,” he recalls. “We were working in sandy terrain with constant cave-ins.

“Our crew slept on the job site for two nights. That job helped me make my decision to get into trenchless technology. … I figured there had to be a better way.”

The transition to trenchless technology, however, wasn’t simple. Even with training provided by Pow-R Mole, Stephens says it took years before the company was going “full blast” into trenchless line rehab.

“It was scary at times,” says Stephens, who established his company in 1993 while he was still an apprentice plumber. (A master plumber he knew represented the company until Stephens became a licensed journeyman plumber.) “You’re always a little scared of what you don’t know.

“But every chance we had to do a job trenchless instead of open trench, we used the Pow-R Mole equipment. It definitely was difficult because you fail a lot, and then you have to go back and you lose time and money.

“Quitting always was an option, but I wanted to be good at it because I knew there was a good market for it. I was pretty persistent.”

Gaining confidence

Stephens persevered. “You’ve got to have faith and confidence not only in yourself, but in the technology,” he says. “As we evolved, I knew this was something that would be viable.

“And when everything goes right the first time, the profit margins are much better than in plumbing. You just have to get enough jobs under your belt.”

Today the company works primarily as a subcontractor, replacing water and sewer lines for commercial buildings and residential homes.

“That’s our bread and butter,” Stephens says.

The company also occasionally installed new water and sewer lines. Commercial jobs generate about 65% of the company’s revenue and residential work contributes the balance.

Stephens planned to be a carpenter, not a plumber, when he attended a trade high school on the west side of Baltimore. But the carpentry courses were full, so his guidance counselor suggested he instead take plumbing classes, then switch to carpentry when a spot opened up.

That never happened — and he’s happy about that twist of fate.

“There’s better money in this work than in carpentry,” he says.

Stephens then graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park with a degree in plumbing. After that, Stephens earned his journeyman’s license and became a master plumber two years later.

In the meantime, he also founded A&A Plumbing when he was 22 years old.

“I just wanted to own my own company,” he says.

The young entrepreneur primarily marketed his company by knocking on doors. He also tried radio and television advertising, which proved to be too expensive for the return on investment.

Plumbers became customers

At that point, Stephens made another critical tactical decision: He decided to market his company to larger plumbing companies and piggyback on their already-established client contacts.

“Basically I went after the plumbers who already were doing a lot of advertising,” he explains. “They realized it made more sense for us to do the work for them.

“Some of them have some of the same equipment we have, but doing this kind of work can be a headache. And since we do it every day, we have more experience, so they put those jobs on us.

“For us, it’s not a headache — it’s just another day at the office.”

Stephens says the idea to essentially work as a subcontractor for large plumbing companies was a gut hunch.

“I don’t have formal business training, but I guess I have good instincts,” he says. “That’s what you need to survive.

“A lot of people out there are much smarter than me and have more resources. I started out without any resources — no money and no guidance. I was young and needed to come up with a solution to every problem on my own.

“But I figured things out.”

Keys to success

Stephens cites three other aspects that were essential to his success: education and experience, consistency and discipline, and personal reflection on the pain and sacrifice required to make things happen.

“You need to become an expert at what you do — educate yourself daily and obtain all the experience you can,” he points out. “For me, success also comes from consistency and discipline — the ability to do the hard things, day after day after day.

“Then you need to reflect on your pain and sacrifice, because pain plus reflection equals progress.”

In addition, Stephens credits his team of employees.

“The A&A team gets complicated jobs done. Everyone is willing to stay on a job until it’s done. That’s a strong point among our employees — I can always depend on them.”

To attract and retain technicians, Stephens says he relies on a combination of factors, including providing them with good equipment, continuing education such as on-the-job training for safety and using new technology, and offering very competitive pay.

“We basically train them and then overpay them so they stay. I think it works because we don’t have a lot of turnover.”

Wise investments

One of the most tangible aspects of Stephens’ success is the lineup of equipment he’s invested in over the years. Eight machines from Pow-R Mole form the backbone of the fleet: five Pow-R Mole directional boring machines (one model PD-2, two PD-4s and two PD-6s) typically used to install pipe on grade, and three pipe bursting systems (one PD-22 and two PD-33s).

Stephens also bought a PV500 trailer-mounted hydroexcavation unit built by Pacific Tek, used to vacuum out test pits during directional-boring projects.

The company also owns a small Model 12 auger machine, made by Bor-It and used for directional boring through difficult soil and rock conditions and rock hammering; three Ford F-450 trucks; and a recently purchased ground-penetrating radar device manufactured by Guideline Geo/MALA.

“The GPR will help us locate pipes or utility lines as well as figure out the depth and location of rock formations,” Stephens says.

Bright prospects

Stephens says he’s excited about the company’s prospects. Future goals include further development of his employees’ skills and adding technologies that will enable the company to provide more services.

“We want to add services and technologies that will allow us to solve even bigger problems and add more value for our clients,” he says. “Most of all, we want to team up with more plumbing companies and add value to their services and help them grow as well.”

As an example of adding value for clients, Stephens says he plans to start a concrete division to make pavement repairs required in the wake of boring and bursting jobs. That would make life easier for clients because it’s hard for them to find contractors that can do the work in a timely manner.

“If we do concrete work, then our clients don’t have to go and look for a concrete guy,” he explains. “The more we can do for them, the better. General contractors like one-stop shops.”

Stephens says he feels truly blessed as he looks back on his decision nearly 30 years ago to not only start a company at age 22, but to take a gamble on trenchless technology.

“I worked really hard and I believe that if you work hard, you get rewarded. It all pays off eventually. You just have to keep plugging away at it.” 


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